The ceaseless battle between Mankind and Mother Nature lies at the heart of the latest production from South Wales-based circus-makers Citrus Arts. But although the team from Citrus has been successfully creating circus-based shows since 2009, this time around they decided to build upon what they do so well by mixing circus with dance, theatre and an arresting aesthetic.
Ceirw: A Savage Hart is the result of years of research and development led by Bridie Doyle-Roberts and her husband James, and is directly inspired by the escapades of the Johnes family of Mid Wales, who owned the Hafod Estate during the 18th century. During research, the family’s stories have been conflated into one representative figure, a cruel nobleman who becomes obsessed with his dominance over nature, symbolised by his tireless hunting of wild animals in the grounds of his estate, mounting their heads on the wall of his grand house.
Before seeing the one-off preview performance of A Savage Hart at Pontio on Saturday night, I went along to meet the Citrus Arts team during rehearsals the day before. Co-director James Doyle-Roberts told me that the production is set between two distinct times in world history – the Age of Enlightenment, when man took science and natural history much more seriously and strove to catalogue and categorise nature, and the later Romantic period when people sought more spiritual comfort in the world around them.
Chatting over a hot mug of coffee in a cold rehearsal hall on the outskirts of Bangor, James told me that the fantasy world of circus works well with the historical fantasy A Savage Hart evokes. The atmosphere conjured by TV series such as Robin of Sherwood and Penda’s Fen, films such as Legend or Watership Down, or anything from the pen of Alan Garner, might be seen as a touchstone, but the catalyst is the Johnes’ story and the rise and fall of the Hafod Estate.
James tells me they wanted to present something a little different to usual, something with a strong narrative and a memorable visual hook. They’ve certainly achieved that, with the striking, beautiful animal masks which the performers wear throughout the show providing an unforgettable illusion which reaches right into our modern day love, respect and protection of the natural world. There’s a proud stag, a cheeky buck and a flirtatious doe, and these animals represent the power of nature, while two more dancers portray the driven husband and the wife who feels left out.
A Savage Hart has been in development for some time, and only this week got its first proper performance ahead of a planned UK tour this autumn. The original idea was to present the show in the round (as seen in the early R&D promo), but various issues led Bridie and James to change their tack and present it in a more traditional front-on style.
In rehearsals, I watched the team work on a particular routine in which the nobleman catches his wife flirting with the stag. The stag moves to protect the nobleman’s wife, declaring that she is now his. This is all a ploy by the wife to try and win back the attentions of her spiritually errant husband, who is more interested in his own pursuits than he is his family life.
I saw five performers and two musicians working hard to perfect a complex presentation, and the chemistry between them was obvious. Citrus Arts works hard to cast performers who will work cohesively, both spiritually and professionally. A Savage Hart requires circus skills as well as dance ability, and the five performers boast a varying mix of both. Some are pure dancers, others are pure circus performers; some are a bit of both. But the production plays to these strengths and wisely plays down the weaknesses. As I watched them rehearse I found it very difficult to believe that a couple of them had only been with the company for a week or so, following the last minute departure of previous members.
The following night at Pontio the finished show was staged. The set is minimal but effective. A dining table set with plates, cutlery and candles, and a wall where the mounted heads of the nobleman’s conquests hang, sets the scene of the baronial manor. The imagination paints the rest in, but it would be rewarding for Citrus to have the money and resources for a full-blown set to show the rundown, dilapidated house, overrun by the tendrils of Mother Nature’s embrace. An outdoor performance in such a real setting, as day falls to dusk, would be magical.
The mix of circus and dance is blended well, although the routines on the trapeze and with the straps and ropes do feel narratively separate to the story. The tumbling, writhing nature of the aerial artistry is impressive, and is complemented well by the stage-based traditional dance from the nobleman and his wife.
James and Bridie were very keen to make sure the story came through clearly, despite there being no dialogue, simply movement and live music (and there’s some very evocative accompaniment from cellist and composer Simon McCorry). The story is very strong in the mix, and although the production as a whole might benefit from shaving off 10 minutes or so, it’s an engrossing tapestry. One of the strongest moments for me was the haunting of the nobleman at his table by the animal spirits – plates and goblets fly through the air and crash to the ground with poltergeist-like savagery.
Then there’s the captivating court scene where the humans and the animals dance together to a traditional, Celtic-style soundtrack. This is powerful and evocative, and teasingly brief.
The Citrus team has more R&D time before A Savage Hart goes on tour from September, and there are early hopes to take the show to Edinburgh in 2017. Anybody who sees this show and has a love of dance and/or circus will get a lot from it. It’s emphasis is more on dance than circus, and it has changed since the early performances seen in the promo video, but the dedication to the story and the narrative is what drives the piece. The masks may be beautiful, and the performers and musicians may be talented, but what makes or breaks any new theatre work is the power of the story, the message the audience should take away. And on that score alone, A Savage Hart is a ferociously mesmerising success.
A Savage Hart can be seen on tour in England Wales from September 2016, including venues in Aberystwyth, Derby and Tewkesbury. See the Citrus Arts website for full details.